BY JULIE PACE AND NEDRA PICKLER
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON -- Sandy overran White House politicking yesterday, with President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney calling off campaign rallies as the strengthening storm bore down on the East Coast.
With eight days to Election Day, neither candidate could afford to totally shut down operations. Political barbs continued on the airways and between aides trying to show the upper hand in a race as tight as ever.
Obama, trying to show effective leadership in a time of impending crisis, met with federal officials monitoring the storm from a video hookup and then addressed the country from the White House.
He repeated that his administration is ready to help respond to the "big and powerful storm" and warned the consequences could be deadly if people don't follow instructions from emergency officials.
Obama attempted to appear above the political fray, dismissing any notion that he's thinking about the campaign.
"The election will take care of itself next week," he said in response to a shouted question, pivoting back to the microphone to answer after turning to leave. "Right now, our number one priority is to make sure we are saving lives, that our search and rescue teams are going to be in place, that people are going to get the food, the water, the shelter they need in case of emergency and that we respond as quickly as possible to get the economy back on track."
Romney didn't have official duties to tend to. Mindful of the optics of politicking while millions of Americans faced grave hardships, the Republican nominee followed suit by canceling all events he and running mate Paul Ryan had scheduled for last night and today.
"Sandy is another devastating hurricane by all accounts, and a lot of people are going to be facing some real tough times as a result of Sandy's fury," Romney said at a campaign stop in Ohio. He planned to stop in swing state Iowa before standing down as the storm made landfall last night.
Romney urged the Ohio crowd to make a contribution to the Red Cross or other relief agency "in any way you can imagine to help those in harm's way," then added a political footnote.
"I know the people of the Atlantic coast are counting on Ohio and the rest of our states," Romney said. "But also I think the people of the entire nation are counting on Ohio because my guess is that if Ohio votes me in as president, I'll be the next president of the United States."
Obama rushed out of battleground Florida yesterday morning ahead of a planned rally and called off today's trip to Wisconsin. Obama's plans to campaign Wednesday in Ohio were still on, though campaign officials said they were evaluating travel plans on an almost hourly basis.
Four states critical to the election are affected by the storm -- North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio and New Hampshire.